The Covenant: just the shell of an idea to be thrown away once the chick is hatched.
The place of Scripture in the Covenant
Archdeacon Penguin has produced an extensive biblical critique of the Erastian settlement still gripping the Church of England and to which the Provincial Council of the Antarctic takes profound and principled objection. He sat on this particular egg for a year before producing it to the Council and it is much too long to reproduce here (See Note 1 below).
His report was received with acclamation. However, prompted by an African Penguin present as an ecumenical observer at the Council, the question was raised as to what weight biblical arguments would have in the context of the Covenant. Specifically:
- What is the status of Scripture in the Covenant?
- What relationship does Scripture have to the other basic elements of Anglicanism set out in the affirmations of Section 1.1?
- What duties does the Covenant place on its signatories in their decision making or in their failure to take decisions? And
- Are there any constraints on the manner of interpretation of Scripture?
- Could any biblical argument be sufficient under the Covenant? If not, what other factors would be necessary for it to be persuasive?
The Province of the Antarctic would like to make clear that (as a compliant signatory) it does not dissent from any Covenant statement and also that it does not endorse, as a Province, a fundamentalist or infallibilist interpretation of Scripture.
The status of Scripture in the Covenant
While the authors are no doubt so steeped in scripture they do not need to reference texts obsessively, nonetheless the Covenant text evinces a curiously uneven pattern of direct biblical references.
There are 23 biblical references in the Covenant, except that 14 of them are in the Introduction, which is not formally part of the Covenant, including the opening sentence from 1 John on our communion with God. There are 2 references in the Preamble and one in the final Declaration, leaving 6 in the core text of which 5 are in 2 subsections of clause 2.2.2. 8 references are from Ephesians (Matthew 4, Mark 2, 2 Corinthians 2 while 1 John, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Revelation and Hebrews have 1 each, and just 1 reference from the whole Old Testament, Jeremiah).
The sparsity and unevenness of explicit scriptural references may give Christians with a very high doctrine of Scripture, such as my venerable Archdeacon, cause for concern. It could almost seem to imply that the Bible is fine to introduce the Covenant and a good note to end on, but other things are more important when we get down to the real business.
Nevertheless statements about Scripture are strong (rightly echoing historic statements within Anglicanism). Scripture is 'God's Word' (Intro, 6) and the locus of the unique revelation of the catholic and apostolic faith (1.1.2). Covenanters affirm
(1.1.3) the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing all things necessary for salvation and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith
Which is sufficient reassurance for the Archdeacon that Scripture has its proper place in the Anglican conceptual universe.
The relationship Scripture has to the other basic elements of Anglicanism set out in the affirmations of Section 1.1
But it is not sufficient reassurance as to the role and place of Scripture in the working out of the Anglican conceptual universe in relation to specific issues.
Scripture is the 'rule and ultimate standard' of Christian faith and, as such, stands in judgement over Christian life and thought. Yet it is equally true that Christian life, specifically its doctrine, worship and moral teaching, forms the interpretative framework through which Scripture is read while Church order provides authoritative structures for adjudicating divergent readings of Scripture. None of this complexity is acknowledged in Section 1.1.
It would seem that the elements of Anglicanism in this section, and which each signatory affirms, is to be taken as a package without any clear statement of their interrelationship (either historically or conceptually). If the order in which these elements are laid out is significant then Scripture is highly significant (appearing in 2 subsections) but is subordinate in some sense to the first affirmation, that each church is in communion with 'the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.' (1.1.1)
Duties the Covenant places on its signatories in their decision making or in their failure to take decisions
Constraints on the interpretation of Scripture
The implications of 1.1, set out in section 1.2, appear at first glance to give greater weight to Scripture.
Each Church's teaching and acting has to be 'in continuity and consonance with Scripture' - qualified by 'the catholic and apostolic faith, order and tradition, ...' and 'mindful of the common councils of the Communion and our ecumenical agreements.' (1.2.1) Pity the poor scholar who tries to use this framework to analyse Church teaching or action.
Churches must also
uphold and proclaim a pattern of Christian theological and moral reasoning and discipline that is rooted in and answerable to the teaching of Holy Scripture and the catholic tradition. (1.2.2)
There is no definition of 'catholic tradition'. (The Vincentian test of 'that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all' is patent nonsense and is contradicted even in his own Comonitoria.) Furthermore, unfortunately, almost all disputes within Churches are between people who all root their arguments in Scripture: disputes frequently focus on the divergent readings of Scripture at least as much as on the differing conclusions. Moral reasoning too has been highly varied over history and yet each generation has explicitly grounded their Christian morality in Scripture.
There is a little more hope for the cause of the Antarctic Province in clause 1.2.4 by which signatories commit themselves
to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures in our different contexts, informed by the attentive and communal reading of - and costly witness to - the Scriptures by all the faithful, by the teaching of bishops and synods, and by the results of rigorous study by lay and ordained scholars.
There is, I suggest, no Anglican Church on the globe for which this is not ordinary daily life. With one small exception: the Church of England has not borne 'costly witness' to the Scriptures. On the contrary it has borne comfortable and cosy witness. It has always been and still is integrated with the State and it has fought long and hard to retain its privileged position over Noncomformists and Roman Catholics and in society at large. Its greatest contemporary costly problem is coping with the legacy of its wealth. Worse still, for generations it turned a blind eye to the costly witness that was in fact being borne by the Scottish Episcopal Church just over its northern border. Is this really a commitment the Church of England can make without blushing?
However, the CofE can sign the next clause by emphasizing the word 'expectation' without actually believing in it:
to ensure that biblical texts are received, read and interpreted faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently, with the expectation that Scripture continues to illuminate and transform the Church and its members, and through them, individuals, cultures and societies. (1.2.5)
Instead of being a limitation on the interpretation of Scripture, or even a guide to preferred ways of reading Scripture, the terms 'faithfully, respectfully, comprehensively and coherently' simply provide comfort to each Church and person in their own reading. The transformation of cultures and societies may be expected but only in the sense that the Second Coming is expected.
Could any biblical argument be sufficient under the Covenant? If not, what other factors would be necessary for it to be persuasive?
And now we come to the nub of the argument. Nothing in the way Scripture has been used in the Covenant and none of the Covenant's statements about Scripture would indicate that a biblical argument could, alone, make a ha'porth of difference to the chance of mounting a case against the Church of England. Nor, for that matter, would a biblical argument alone be sufficient for anything under the Covenant.
But the detailed clauses of the Covenant were never intended to offer such a framework. The Covenant is not to be read as legislation in which each clause creates a distinct rule and the breach of any one clause is an offence answerable in law.
The Covenant is a catalyst to change the Communion, a facade for the actual changes that are being sought, a piece of organizational legerdemain. Like the shell of an egg it is necessary at first and yet can be completely discarded - or, at least, shelved - once the penguin is hatched.
The blandness and mother's milk of the Covenant statements are intended to ensure it is acceptable to the widest range of Anglican Provincial governing bodies. They are the sugar coating on a bitter pill.
The remaining clause which explicitly mentions Scripture is the heart of the whole Covenant programme. Each member Church commits itself:
to seek a shared mind with other Churches, through the Communion’s councils, about matters of common concern, in a way consistent with the Scriptures, the common standards of faith, and the canon laws of our churches. Each Church will undertake wide consultation with the other Churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion. (3.2.4)
The slippery concept of a 'shared mind' (or, in earlier versions, a 'common mind') is key to understanding the Covenant. What, after all, is a shared or common mind in the context of internecine disputation? And if the object of consultation is a shared mind what can it mean except a majority view arrived at by some recognized constitutional process?
And 'shared mind' is the obverse of 'incompatible with the Covenant'. To find one is to define the other.
This is how the Covenant is a shell: it sets up the need for a mechanism - the determination of what constitutes a shared mind - which is not contained in its own text. Politics, not the Bible nor the Covenant text, will determine the future of the Anglican Covenant.
So: all we need to successfully pursue our case is sufficient biblical grounding and references to the other standards of faith and canon law, lots of righteous anger and one or two canny political operators. With these spiritual weapons girded round us we can undoubtedly rouse enough other Provinces to take up our cause.
Be warned: the Antarctic is coming North!
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The Archdeacon's text is far too long to reproduce on a blog - see the website (under construction) for full text.
A copy has been given to each member of the Provincial Council and they are encouraged to make it their winter reading.
Otherwise see Colin Buchanan's Cut the Connection: Disestablishment and the Church of England (1994) and Is the Church of England Biblical? (1998) Amazon links.